Divided Congress Paralyzes Government
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is on assignment. I'm Steve Inskeep.
Politicians here in Washington agree on one thing: they can't agree on anything. So far this year, long debates on reducing troop levels in Iraq have gone no where, spending bills are in limbo, and today the Senate is trying again on a children's health insurance program that was vetoed by President Bush. In a moment we'll hear the way that last disagreement could leave a lot of states short of money for children's health.
We begin with NPR's Brian Naylor reporting on the apparent disappearance of the middle ground.
BRIAN NAYLOR: To hear minority Republicans tell it, this is the very definition of a do-nothing Congress. Here's how Florida Republican Adam Putnam began a news conference the other morning.
Representative ADAM PUTNAM (Republican, Florida): They haven't found solutions for the American people on children's health insurance, they haven't provided solutions on modernizing our foreign intelligence, they have only provided a post-office Congress that the only bills that have found their way to the White House involved renaming buildings.
NAYLOR: They, of course, being majority Democrats. Republicans even enlisted Jay Leno to make their case, helpfully distributing a bit from a recent "Tonight Show" monologue.
(Soundbite of TV show "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno")
Mr. JAY LENO (Host, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"): The Democrats in Congress have announced they'll now be taking Fridays off. Apparently, they're getting worried their approval rating was too high.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LENO: They're now going to a four-day workweek. Well, why not? I mean, they'd gotten so much done, huh? Solving health care, immigration, Social Security, whoo, take a break, fellas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LENO: Why don't you go to three days and give yourself a pay raise too?
NAYLOR: Democrats won control of both chambers of Congress a year ago this month, promising to change Washington. Republican Congressman David Hobson of Ohio says, other than being back in the minority after 12 years, he sees little that's different about this Congress.
Representative DAVID HOBSON (Republican, Ohio): I don't think they learned from our mistakes.
NAYLOR: Hobson is retiring after this term. He says among the biggest mistakes his party made and which Democrats are now repeating is trying to ram their bills through rather than finding a compromise.
Rep. HOBSON: It would seem to me that reaching out and working together is what the public wants and the way to maintain yourself is to get your proposals passed. Maybe they're not as one-sided as you would like but at least you'd get consensus and you get something done. And I think what we're experiencing now is the same old, same old.
NAYLOR: Not surprisingly, Democrats disagree. In an interview with NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reeled off a list of accomplishments that have become law including raising the minimum wage, making college loans more affordable, and implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. She says her party has been reaching out.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): The same people who say find common ground are those who say stand your ground when you can't find it, and that's what we do. And as a matter of fact, on every piece of legislation that we had passed and the president has signed, we have had overwhelming bipartisan support.
NAYLOR: The number two Democrat in the Senate, Richard Durbin of Illinois, says there has been consensus on several issues in that chamber, even if it hasn't always resulted in legislation.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Sure, there are differences. But we find Republicans who support our position, our changing the policy in the war. We've had Republican support for rewriting college financial aid. I mean, we've had Republican support on a lot of different issues along the way. Children's health insurance - 18 Republicans in the Senate joined us.
NAYLOR: Journalist Ronald Brownstein doesn't see this Congress as anymore divided than previous ones. Brownstein is author of a new book, "The Second Civil War," how extreme partisanship has paralyzed Washington and polarized America. He says Democratic congressional leaders are swimming against a historical trend toward polarization and President Bush isn't helping.
Mr. RONALD BROWNSTEIN (Author, "The Second Civil War"; Journalist): The only way to really change this dynamic is to have a president who is fundamentally committed to changing it. And I think President Bush, throughout his presidency, has seen drawing bright lines as a strategy that serves him better than trying to build broad coalitions. And certainly, since 2006, he's turned even further in that direction.
NAYLOR: Democrats say they will continue to work with Republicans when they can and there will be opportunities down the road on issues such as an energy bill. But even if lawmakers can't find consensus in Congress, convincing the president to go along is another matter.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.
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